Temples of South India

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Item Code: IHK089
Author: Ambujam Anantharaman
Publisher: East West Books (Chennai) Pvt Ltd
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788188661428
Pages: 422 (Illustrated Throughout In Color)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
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Book Description
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South India is fortunate to have so many temples that are symbols of grandeur and intricate architecture. This book takes the reader on a journey through most of the prominent temples in this region covering the history, the legend, and devotional and societal aspects. Detailed information, which will help tourists plan a comfortable visit with regard to mode of travel, accommodation, weather and attractions near the temples along with a list of cautions primarily meant for the foreign tourist, have been provided. The second edition has detailed information on major temples and included in the first edition.

Ambujam Anantharman was born and brought up in Chennai’s oldest settlement, Mylapore, where temples and traditions dominated day-to-day life. Childhood visits to temple after temple developed into a passion that resulted in a column on the subject for a popular website.

Her training and experience as a journalist saw to it that she looked at all aspects-spiritual, devotional, historical, architectural and societal facets of individual temples. Ambujam is a gold medalist from Madras University in English literature and is a Jack Howard fellow in science reporting from the California Institute of Technology, USA. She is married to a railway officer and has two children.

She has in a career spanning two decades, worked in the Press Trust of India (PTI), The Hindu and the United News of India (UNI) apart from websites.


The human mind ever needs to fix itself on some object, material or immaterial, for the satisfaction of its physical, mental and spiritual needs. In the early years of mankind, people prayed to forms of nature like the tree or the sun, inanimate objects like stones and rivers, and lesser beings like animals and birds. It did not take Man much longer to search for something more to look up to, to find something that he could fashion with his own hands and worship. He made rough figurines of mud and stone, coloured with them with natural powders, and decorated them with flowers and leaves. These figurines invariably took on the shapes that he was accustomed to seeing everyday-the hill that he could spot in the distance, the elephant he avoided while hunting or the boy with the fine features who lived next door.

Man recognized from the very beginning that these figurines or objects were distinct from himself. In some process difficult to explain, he endowed them with powers. Perhaps, one day, prayer to a figurine in the form of a lion brought him good hunting spoils, or worshipping a river brought rains that his crops desperately needed. At some point, he began to feel that if he, in turn, made some offerings to what had now become his deities or Gods, they would look more kindly upon him So he offered them fruits and vegetables, raw flesh and cooked flesh. When his wishes came true, he organized elaborate thanks giving to the deities, involving the local people. He even built crude structures to protect them from the very elements he thought they represented!

Such must have been the evolution of the temple. Of course, it is an enormous gap from what early man thought and did, to the marvelous constructions conceived and executed by later ‘civilizations’. But, essentially, it was this sixth sense given to Man that led him on this quest for something outside himself. Temples are manifestations of the soul’s desire to look and find something that is larger than itself. This is why fanes, whether they be Mosques, Churches, Viharas or Temples, are common to all religions.

Divisions over idol worship, customs and practices, differing concepts of mortality and immortality, sin and salvation, these are all of later origin. What came first was the need to have something different from oneself to supplicate to, and this need has persisted and outlasted all other needs of mankind.

Coming to Hinduism, this philosophy tells us that all human endeavour should be aimed at overcoming the trials and tribulations of earthly life through means such as bhakti and surrender, and thereby attain moksha or salvations. In this state, the mortal comes closest to the immortal. Hinduism says that the crucial distinction between the human and the divine is that the former, caught in samsara (worldly affairs), is torn between the poles of pain and pleasure, misery and ecstasy, while God is in a state of eternal bliss or Ananda. Salvation frees one from the cycle of rebirths that Hinduism believes in.

The soul and its union with the Divine have always been subjects for introspection among the scholarly and the simple. Who is God? What do his manifestations stand for? What is the relationship of Man to God? In most of us, these questions remain in the back of the mind, while in some they lead to the study of the scriptures. In a rare and brilliant few, the enquiring mind is wrought to such an extreme that there is a process of intense agitation leading to enlightenment and outpouring of joy. In the not so enquiring too, at some point in day-to-day life the question assails us - should I not give up the material and the mundane to pursue spirituality and godliness and achieve freedom from rebirth?

Ascetics do just this when they renounce the material world and become sanyasins. Obviously, for 99% of mankind, this is not possible. So, it is to the temple that he turns, to satiate his inclination for the spiritual.

This thesis does not intend to denigrate or even reduce the great importance the temple has played in the social fabric of our country, or the socio-cultural role it continues to play. Temples have always been places for kings to bestow favours to poets and philosophers while getting honours themselves, for people to congregate and exchange ideas, for elders to plan welfare schemes for the common folk. There may be no more kings, but this custom still continues.

For that matter, temples of the past were built mainly by kings or their vassals. To rulers, temples were first a symbol of their sovereignty. God reigned inside the temple, but the king reigned in the land where the temple stood! The grander the temple, the more respect the ruler got from his subjects. Second, temples were built as a measure of thanks for victory in war or martial campaigns. In this case, the temple usually had as the presiding deity, the kula deivam or family deity of that royal line. Third, fortunately for us, Indian rulers have been of an aesthetic bent of mind. Temples were the best way for them to exercise this penchant and organize the building of fantastic works of art. Whether it be sculpture on huge pillars of granite or minute idols of metal, whether it be painting of massive murals on temple walls or intricate paintings on palm leaves, whether it be huge canopies of hand-worked cloth or small golden robes for the idols of gods and goddesses, the best of Indian art has been associated with the temple.

In South India, various dynasties contributed to temple construction and embellishment. Most often, the antiquity of a temple and those who built it have been established with the help of numerous epigraphic inscriptions in the temples themselves. Sometimes, references to certain temples in ancient literature like the Tamil Sangam classics, have proved helpful. There are many instances where the dating of a temple has not been proved conclusively.

Tamil Nadu became a land of temples thanks to the Pallavas, the Pandyas and the Cholas. The Pallavas built both rock-cut and structural temples from the 4th century A D to the 9th century A D. An outstanding example is Mamallapuram. The Pandya (7th -16th century A D) temples predominate the southern parts of Tamil Nadu and adjoining Kerala. The most magnificent temple builders were the Cholas, who lavished wealth on temple construction from the 9th to 13th centuries A.D. What better example than the Thanjavur Brihadeeswara temple? After the fall of the Cholas, the Vijayanagaras (14th - 17th century A D) and the Nayaks continued the tradition. Once the East India Company entered the scene, these activities diminished.

The Vijayanagaras dominated neighbouring Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh too, whether amazing Hampi in Karnataka or astounding Lepakshi in Andhra Pradesh. Before their advent, the Western Gangas (3rd - 11th century A D), Western Chalukyas (6th to 8th century A D) and the Hoysalas (11th - 14th century A D) - the master architects of Belur and Halebid - fashioned great temples in the Karnataka region. In fact, Hoysala influence can be seen as far down south as Tiruvanna-malai in Tamil Nadu.

In the Andhra Pradesh region, the Eastern Chalukyas (7th - 11th century A D) and the Eastern Gangas (11th to 15th century A D) built many grand temples like Simhachalam.

In Kerala, the Chera influence was strong till the rulers of Venad, Travancore, Cochin and other princely states from the 14th to the 19th century A D evolved the unique style of Kerala temple architecture with sloping roofs, intricate wooden sculptures and panels, use of tiles and brass ornamentation.

Talking of architectural styles, while the Kerala type is suited to the rainy terrain, the Hoysalas preferred soapstone as it lent itself to the most elaborate and intricate sculpture and carving. It was also locally available. Their style is also marked by a central shrine with manifold smaller shrines around. The Cholas liked the grandeur of granite and tall towers, while the Vijayanagaras combined all these elements to reach near perfection.

In all these cases, there was adherence to the Shastras-codified traditions. These related to Vastu (location), Shilpa (structure) and Agama (ritual). There was also selection of temple style based on the shikara (roof over the sanctum sanctorum). The three styles, in brief, are the nagara - four sided, dravida - hexagon or octagon and the vesara - circular, apsidal or ellipse. Barring some rare Chola temples, the shikara (vimanam) would invariably be smaller than the temple tower or the gopuram. Further variations involved how many mandapams or ornate halls the temple had.

Proceeding now to the legends that are in integral part of the Indian psyche. Gods, goddesses, the vahanas (vehicles) they travel on, the demons they fight and overcome, the stories of their weddings and the stories of their marital disputes, their periodic ‘visits’ to Earth for some festival or the other, these are as real to the Indian mind as they may be alien to the Western mind. There is no fun visiting a temple without finding out the legend behind its construction. As Indian children are told these stories by their mothers and grandmothers right from childhood, a visitor to a temple, even when adult, would first tend to ask why Lord Krishna was in a particular pose in a particular temple, rather than ask which school of architecture the temple belonged to! The serious student, of course, would undoubtedly ask the latter question, along with queries on antiquity, history and combination of architectural styles.

This book has attempted to describe History and Antiquity, Art and Architecture, Legend and Lore, Customs and Culture, to the best extent possible. In the around 50 temples covered, every one of these aspects may not have been covered, for want of information. This is not for lack of trying. While most of the temples described are in worship, some not in worship such as Hampi, Belur, Halebid and Somnathpur, have been included for the benefit of those interested in architecture and for foreign tourists. Temples which have come up around the samadhis of saints, such as Mantralayam in Andhra Pradesh, have also been included as saints like Raghavendra and Adi Sankara have a large following. This writer has visited all the temples, which have been written about, except Sabarimala in Kerala. For this temple, accounts of those who have been there have been relied on.

This book has attempted to describe History and Antiquity, Art and Architecture, Legend and Lore, Customs and Culture, to the best extent possible. In the around 50 temples covered, every one of these aspects may not have been covered, for want of information. This is not for lack of trying. While most of the temples described are in worship, some not in worship such as Hampi, Belur, Halebid and Somnathpur, have been included for the benefit of those interested in architecture and for foreign tourists. Temples which have come up around the samadhis of saints, such as Mantralayam in Andhra Pradesh, have also been included as saints like Raghavendra and Adi Sankara have a large following. This writer has visited all the temples, which have been written about, except Sabarimala in Kerala. For this temple, accounts of those who have been there have been relied on.

The number of temples selected for each state is in proportion to the number of important temples in that state. Therefore the temples included from Tamil Nadu are more in number than those in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh or Kerala. At the same time, there are many more temples which should have been written about, but have not, either because this writer has not been there or because of space constraints.

In addition, at the end of each piece, exhaustive travel information has been provided with regard to access, accommodation, nearby attractions and other details. At the end of the text, there is a section on precautions, which all potential visitors should read.

But the overriding strand which runs through every piece is devotion, since, ultimately, the temple is a standing symbol of devotion to God.

Preface to the Second Edition

This edition came about primarily because of the need to write on some major temples that were not covered in the first effort. These include sites of great archaeological significance like Badami-Aihole-Pattadakal in Karnataka and Lepakshi in Andhra Pradesh (AP). And then are the temples with a lot of religious import like Srisailam in AP and Chottanikkara in Kerala.

A couple of rare temples have been included though they are not large in size, such as Suruttupalli, also in AP. The Navagraha shrines in Tamil Nadu (TN) have been dealt with extensively as they are very popular among devotees.

Still, it is by no means ‘total coverage’ - many treasures are there, which have yet to be explored. Some of them like Srikakulam in AP have been omitted because they have become virtually inaccessible owing to security concerns.

The same pattern of giving tourist information has been followed for the 16 additional temples.

What struck me while writing these chapters is the commonality of myth and legend relating to temples separated geographically by a considerable distance. We have read about the story of how the Ranganatha idol took root in Srirangam in Taruchirapalli, TN, when it was put down on the ground, contrary to instruction. Quaintly, there is a similar legend about three lingams in Kerala at the temples of Vaikom, Kaduthuruthy and Ettumanoor. They too became entrenched at the spots where they were placed down by the person who was entrusted with carrying them!

And then, there are the inevitable variations. Did the great bird Jatayu get salvation in Vaitheeswarankovil in TN as we have said in the first edition, or in Lepakshi, hundreds of kilometers away? And where exactly did Arjuna do penance to get arms for his battle against the Pandavas? I beg to submit that it hardly matters, for this is the stuff that dreams are made of!


Acknowledgements ix
Preface xi
Sriperumbudur - birthplace of Sri Ramanuja 1
Temples of Anjaneya - the symbol of courage, strength and “bhakthi” 8
Vaidya Veeraraghavaswamy 17
Ashtalakshmi Temple on the beach 21
The Great temple of Tiruvannamalai 25
The Nava Tirupathis praised by Nammazhwar 35
Propitiating the Navagrahas 45
Thirunangur - Town of temples 62
Union of art and spirituality in Thanjavur Big Temple 68
The God who eats no salt: Uppiliappan; Kumbakonam 75
The powerful deity of Palani 80
Bestowing all good - Karpaga Vinayaka of Pillayarpatti 85
Pilgrimage to Rameswaram 90
Twin temples at Mamallapuram and Kadalmallai 96
Lord Venkateshwara at Gunaseelam 101
The grand temple of Mylapre 106
Kumariamman at Kanyakumari 116
Meenakshi Amman at Madurai 120
The cosmic dance of Siva: Chidambaram 128
A beautiful boar! : Tiruvidanthai 136
The famed Parthasarathy temple of Chennai 139
Divine deliberations on riverbank: Pazhayaseevaram 146
Lord Ranganatha of Srirangam 150
Uchi Pillayar temple on Rock Fort 160
The temple town of Kanchipuram 167
The fairest Azhwar of them all : Srivilliputhur 177
Rama the Saviour : Madurantakam 183
Belur, Halebid and Somnathpur - marvels of architecture 189
Sree Chamundeeswari of Mysore 197
Aihole, Badami and Pattadakkal - worksop to exalted art 203
Hilly abode of Narayana : Melkote 212
The unimaginable wonder that is Hampi 216
Mookambiga at Kollur: Trishakthi 230
Dharmasthala 235
Serenity in Srirangapatnam 239
Sri Saradambal of Sringeri 243
Lord Krishna: ever benevolent to his devotees: Udipi 250
Ancient Temples in Hi-Tech city 256
Sandy “darshan” at Talakad 261
Sree Ananthapadmanabha Swamy of Thiruvananthapuram 265
Vaikom, Kaduthuruthy and Ettumanoor the salvation trail 272
Temples of Ayyapa - the universal deity 277
Ambalapuzha Sree Krishna Temple 281
The glory of Guruvayurappa; Guruvayur 288
Thuravur Maha Kshetram 295
Lord Janardhana at Varkala 299
Chhotanikkara Bhagavathy Amman 305
Vadakkunatha Temple in Thrissur 310
Sree Vallabha Temple at Tiruvalla 315
Kaladi - birthplace of Adi Sankara 319
Raghavendra - the saint of Mantralayam 323
Temples of Tadipatri 330
The true devotion of Bhadrachala Ramdas 335
Lepakshi the house 342
The spider, the serpent and the elephant - Srikalahasthi 348
Lord Srinivasa of Tirumala 354
Kanaka Durga Temple in Vijayawada 368
The unique idol of Varaha Narasimha: Simhachalam 371
Srisailam 377
Panchanarasimha sthala - Yadagirigutta 381
The most popular figure of Kanipakkam 384
Surutapalli - Siva in rare recumbent form 387
Propitiating Lord Saneeswara at Tirunallar 390
Manarkula Vinayaka in Pondicherry 394
Cautions 398
Bibliography 401
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